Close your eyes. Let my words wash over you. You are safe now.
Welcome to Night Vale.
The gentle baritone of purple-clad, third eye-bearing radio host Cecil Gershwin Palmer has opened every episode of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast since its premiere in June 2012, and over the last five and a half years the show has expanded to live stage shows, novels, merchandise, spin-off podcasts and a newly-announced TV series.
A bona fide 21st-century internet phenomenon, Night Vale may already feel too painfully millennial for you, but allow me to set the scene for you, dear listener, and see if I can’t change your mind.
Imagine a sleepy desert town (or city, it changes often) somewhere in the Southwestern United States where the strange, unexplained and impossible are instead the mundane, the ordinary, and the commonplace.
A place created by an ancient goddess where a five-headed dragon named Hiram once ran for mayor. Somewhere the Sheriff’s Secret Police constantly circle in unmarked helicopters so secretive it can be illegal to even hear them by accident. Where a record store regularly entraps the spirits of deceased music legends for exclusive in-store performances. And where Steve Carlsberg is still the worst.
It’s paranormal humour that will immediately grab any fans of The X-Files’ landmark ‘comedy’ episodes, or anybody who grew up on Tim Burton, Jhonen Vasquez or Guillermo del Toro’s blend of the macabre and the ridiculous. Thanks to all the invasions by hostile corporations, demonic beagles and mayoral candidates turned terrorist, the town has a fantastically high body count, particularly of radio station interns (the Redshirts of Night Vale). As Cecil once remarked, however: “If we had to shut down for every mysterious event that at least one death could be attributed to, we’d never have time to do anything!”
Not including its many specials, one-offs and other extras, the central podcast recently released its 120th episode, following two epic three-part serials as the show winds down another year of broadcasts. Its second novel It Devours is available now, and soon to be followed by two new script books covering the third and fourth years of the show.
Originally conceived by New York-based performance artists Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor as half hour snapshots of news, announcements and advertisements from a town where all conspiracy theories are real, Night Vale has ballooned into a multimedia phenomenon that is set to take off into a new medium with the announcement of a new FX TV series currently in development, overseen by Better Call Saul executive producer Gennifer Hutchison.
Its move into television is spectacularly well-timed, given the buzz around 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, and Night Vale live shows have been running since late 2013 to make sure as many potential Glow Cloud followers as possible get the chance to bellow ALL HAIL in a room full of strangers.
On stage, the show’s roots make a lot more sense, framed as an old-school radio play with no set or props, merely performers and microphones plus the lo-fi, experimental backing music of composer Jon Bernstein, going by his nom de plume of Disparition. The silky smooth Cecil Baldwin has played Night Vale Radio host Cecil in almost every episode, barring a few sojourns in a desert otherworld or occasional possession by the mighty Glow Cloud (which is also president of the school board), and his magnetic, slyly engaging presence on stage is all the more alluring with the weight of five years of podcasts behind it.
My experience of ‘All Hail’, the Night Vale stage show, came from a two-hour live performance at Nottingham’s Albert Hall, the purple interior decor and imposing church organ lending the stage a suitably gothic presence.
The energetic, guest-heavy live readings made full use of the audience to expand the format – plenty of participation (who doesn’t enjoy group chants or ghost hunting?) and even a dash of performance art. The format is that of a typical recording of a radio comedy – performers on stage with scripts, no props and lots of room for expressive voice acting.
The beauty of this approach is it maintains one of Night Vale’s key strengths as a piece of art – ten different listeners will have ten different mental images of the set and characters. Even with a millennial-focused audience indulging in gleefully experimental cosplay, Night Vale inspires a devoted following and plenty of imagination.
How could it work on screen? A darkly humorous blend of Northern Exposure, Haven and Twin Peaks – vignettes, self-contained arcs and plenty of continuity built around notable inhabitants of the town, all framed by Cecil’s silky radio broadcasts in a similar style to Northern Exposure‘s DJ Chris Stevens (a pre-Sex and the City John Corbett). It could very well be The Next Best Thing Ever, once it works out how best to approach visualising concepts that have been left to listeners’ imaginations for the last five years without disappointing the faithful fans.
Back on the podcast, Cecil is joined by a wide range of guest performers bringing the show’s myriad supporting characters to life – celebrity guests have included geek royalty Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day, alongside Fringe star Jasika Nicole, Castle‘s Molly Quinn and acting vet James Urbaniak, but the lack of any approved artwork or visualisations means what the town and its residents actually look like is entirely down to the individual listener.
One element that works as a palate cleanse is the Weather – each episode, a different independent artist plays us a song, and on tour the Night Vale crew have brought a selection of house musicians along to keep the crowd toasty and break up the performance.
It’s easy to try and describe Night Vale, but impossible to fully capture the long-form storytelling and dry humour without putting on some headphones and listening to it for yourself. Their site has a neat Starter’s Guide that picks out some notable episodes for beginners, and with standalone novels and episode transcripts also available, you can dive into Night Vale in whatever medium takes your fancy.
So until the TV show arrives, for those who like their coffee like they like their nights – dark, endless and impossible to sleep through – all I can say is good night, dear listener. Good night.